Do you want to talk about the death penalty? Because I do! before I continue, can you guess which side I will take? More importantly, can I make it interesting enough for you to read the whole thing.
The current argument against capital punishment is that it is either cruel or unusual. There is some mind-numbing article written along these lines every day. Maybe the drugs that are used hurt, or the windows that allow visitors to look in are embarrassing, or the FDA has only approved that particular drug for euthanizing chronically ill sea turtles. Actually, these made-up examples make it sound way more interesting than it is. The truth is it’s all technical details that do not resonate with the American people. These arguments may be fodder for lawyers, but lets face it, lawyers are boring. In general no one cares.
So? Money shot follows…
The reason that Capital Punishment in the United States needs to be abolished is because our system makes mistakes. Not all the time, and maybe only rarely, but when there is a chance that the system has made a mistake, no punishment can be enacted that fails to offer a recourse. It’s that simple, and everyone should get behind this.
Think about it. If we throw a guy in jail for 30 years and 29 years into his sentence, we decide to check the DNA and find that – oops – he isn’t the guy that did it. We can let him out of jail. Society is going to owe him a huge apology and hopefully a whole lot of tax-payer funded comforts to make up for his time in jail, but he gets to have what’s left of his life back. Conversely, if we execute a convict only to discover after the fact that his DNA did not match what was found at the crime site, we have absolutely no way to correct even a portion of the societal wrong.
There are those that like the “what about now” argument. This is applied to heinous monsters like John Wayne Gacy and James Eagan Holmes, the Colorado theater killer. The argument goes that they clearly did it and their crimes were so heinous that they clearly need to be put down. In these cases I kind of want to agree. But then I remind myself that these men were unanimously convicted and sentenced by the same pool of jurors that unanimously convicted and sentenced Rolando Cruz of the Jeanine Nicarico murder in 1983. Rolando Cruz spent 12 years on death row losing multiple appeals before Brian Dugan confessed to the killings and Cruz was sent home.
And just how often does the system accidentally make a mistake? Check this out! Since 1973 when the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois, the state has put to death 12 inmates. Let that sink in. 12. Over that time Illinois has exonerated – reversed the guilty verdict and set free – 20 death row inmates. That means that in Illinois, since 1973, our system has made capital punishment mistakes 63% of the time! That is not a rare occurrence. That can only be described as most of the frickin’ time!
There is a certain cost that society is willing to bear to keep law and order. Part of that cost is that occasionally the wrong man goes to jail. It is unfortunate, but inevitable, and acceptable. But the other side of that token is that society owes it to those who pay that cost to offer recourse when a mistake is found.
A version of this post originally ran on Facebook in September 2015.